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Sochi, Russia — Glowing volcanoes, the planet's oldest and deepest lake, great forests of birch, horses galloping in a 215-foot-long troika, Peter the Great, waltzing nobles, dazzling ballet, soaring opera, a cast of thousands and yes, even revolution. The Winter Games Opening Ceremonies gathered the world into the great, chaotic, provocative embrace of Russian history Friday and wouldn't let go.
The scale bordered on the colossal. If London on its modest isle would do buzz, Russia would do big — befitting the world's largest country, twice the size of the United States. Swan Lake? Of course, with the swans turned into doves of peace released in honor of the Olympics and prima ballerina Diana Vishneva onstage. The Olympic hymn? Sung by diva Anna Netrebko.
The cost? Most expensive Games ever at an estimated $50 billion. The performance? Only one disaster in these problem-plagued Games, and it was quickly hidden.
And the torch! Six former Olympic champions — including tennis player Maria Sharapova and rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva, who has been rumored to be romantically linked to President Vladimir Putin — carried the flame past several thousand cheering performers and hundreds of volunteers.
Figure skater Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretiak, a former goaltender for the Soviet hockey team, bore it out of the stadium, across a plaza and to a small cauldron. They lowered the torch, and soon a burst of fire spread along a path to the big torch above them, which burst into flame.
Deeply thunderous fireworks resounded inside the stadium and without, and there was no doubt the Games had begun.
If London was pop, Sochi would be poetry — in motion. History was imparted in a feat of light, 132 projectors and 2.64 million lumens turning the floor of Fisht Olympic Stadium into a raging sea, bearing a boat where Peter the Great, the would-be navigator, was striding his way through history in seven-league boots.
Every part of the program was written in the superlative. The triumphal national anthem was sung by the choir of the Sretensky Monastery, founded more than 600 years ago to celebrate Moscow's escape from invasion by Tamerlane. The Olympic mascots — a snow leopard on a snowboard, a bear on ice skates, a rabbit on skis — would have dwarfed the balloons in a Macy's parade.
Though a giant snowflake refused to morph into one of the Olympic rings, the TV channel that carried the broadcast throughout Russia quickly substituted tape from a Tuesday dress rehearsal showing all five rings in proper formation.
“This thing with the ring is bad, but it doesn't humiliate us,” said Konstantin Ernst, the head of Russian's Channel One television and the ceremony producer. “And it was the simplest thing out of all the technical elements.”
The effect was majestic, and even subtle. Foreigners saw a familiar if spectacularly executed emblem of Russia in the blazing-with-light troika flying in the air before them, pulling a fiery sun.
Russians were surrounded with cultural touchstones. The 19th-century writer Nikolai Gogol had burned the troika into every Russian heart in “Dead Souls,” comparing it to their nation: “the roaring air is torn to pieces and becomes wind; all things on earth fly by and other nations and states gaze askance as they step aside and give her the right of way.”
The empire flowered. Peter's epauletted, gray-clad soldiers marched in smart formation before turning into graceful waltzing gentry in a scene out of “War and Peace,” “Natasha Rostova's First Ball.”
Spectators gasped as 14 marbleized columns rose out of the floor high up toward the ceiling. Liveried footmen held candelabra. This was the era that nurtured ballet, and modern stars, including Svetlana Zakharova and Vladimir Vasiliev, danced in celebration, a scene within a scene.
The tempo quickened, the columns disappeared, the dancers huddled together, bending and swaying, arms stretched upward in despair. Snow fell, darkness descended, interrupted by frenetic streaks of light. The dancers fled, or died.
And the revolution! The 40,000 spectators found themselves in the middle of a painting by Kazimir Malevich, the influential avant-garde artist of the early 20th century. First, a streamlined locomotive traveled through the air, suspended on cables from the vaulted ceiling, accompanied by geometric objects painted blood-red.
Then workers, garbed in Malevich red and black, marched, pursued by towering machinery in muted red — the luster of idealism had worn off. The workers hurried, bent and twisted, but got caught up in gears and wheels so huge they made the people around them small and insignificant. Soon they were nothing but cogs.
It was an unflinching look at the Soviet system, absent of nostalgia or shame, viewed through the artistic vision of one of its victims.
The painting breaks apart, drifting away. Skyscrapers rise on panels and huge familiar sculptured heads drift toward each other and pass, vacant-eyed. They are the worker — disembodied hand carrying his hammer — and peasant woman — disembodied hand holding a scythe — built for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris.
No mention of Stalin or terror; the emphasis, Ernst said, was on achievement.
Then came the 1960s, and a period remembered fondly by many adult Russians today. Men triumphantly carried red jets, then white rockets. The name of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, illuminated the floor. Buildings rose; actual old Soviet cars drove down the middle of the stage.
A frenetic but cheerful dance went from students to hipsters to lovers to weddings to kids. It ended with a nod to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, with runners and the games' theme music from 34 years ago.